I’ve done some sporty driving alone on a twisty road, but before I wrote here at Car Autance I was a boring-ass Lyft driver. Not exactly living the racetrack-ready lifestyle, I reckon. Journalists have damn near universally (sort of) loved the driving dynamics of my Fiat 500 Abarth — but what authority do I have to second that? I mean, I’ve never been on the track. Trackdays sound expensive and intimidating, how would I even find out where to go?
Maybe we should rename Car Autance to Track Autance. Everyone here’s got track experience — Peter and Chris regularly track the hell out of their daily-driven hatchbacks. Andrew’s been a stalwart auto journo for at least a decade, so you know he’s seen a track day or two. Me? Nope, no track experience whatsoever. Time to change that.
My Chevy Sonic’s new owner Jarrett Allman casually mentioned he was a driving instructor for Autointerests — a local novice-oriented HPDE troupe. Their prices were reasonable; $249 for a full day on-track instruction beginners “boot camp”, at the famed Nelson Ledges racetrack. I paid Autointerests a whopping $249 (and $5 for numbers) and made sure I was at Nelson Ledges by 7 a.m. for tech inspection.
Autointerests does instruction and races for all skill levels, all over the midwest and western half of the east coast. The “Boot Camp” experience is a bit different than other events they put on, as it’s entirely for first-timers, novice, and intermediate drivers. Of course, other cars are on the track at the same time you are, but it isn’t really a race, per se. We’re all here to build skills and become better drivers, a mantra the instructors repealed all day.
The Fiat’s in great shape, passing tech inspection was a breeze. Essentially, they’ll check your tires (no bubbles, or excessive tread wear), brakes (fluid level, fluid quality, pad life), and make sure you’re not hemorrhaging fluids everywhere. A tech inspection sounds more intimidating than it really is, I was nervous that the Fiat could have issues passing. Autointerests spells out exactly everything your vehicle needs to pass tech. I read their checklist, and my anxiety was allayed – the Fiat was good to go. If you’re nervous, simply follow their checklist, and you should be okay. Remember, your helmet and outfit are also a part of their tech inspection! Closed-toe, lace-up shoes are a must. No shorts or skirts, either.
After the tech inspection, there was an hour-long mandatory drivers meeting. We focused primarily on safety, things to do, and what not to do on the track. We went over the flags, what they mean when they’ll be deployed. If you’re on the track and experience a vehicle disabling emergency, stay in the car! Unless it’s on fire, that is.
We were all in the first-timers; a novice group here. Some drivers have more track experience than others, but as a whole, everybody was new to performance driving. Thus, although our track session was wheel to wheel, it was not a race. The organizers repeated that constantly, this boot camp was not a race! We weren’t there to be aggressively competitive or focus on lap times, we were there to become better drivers. So, part of the drivers’ meeting was a course overview, including tips on how to navigate Nelson Ledges’s curves. For the day, they limited passing to two straightaway sections on the track.
After the drivers’ meeting, we took a ride along with our instructors, who all brought vehicles of varying performance levels. My instructor, Nick, had a race-prepped NA Miata. A couple of my HDPE and IMSA adjacent friends told me about Nelson Ledges — it’s an older track, more similar to a country road, than a racetrack. No real elevation changes, the road is narrow, with very little runoff, if you screw up too hard, you’re definitely going into a wall!
We did a couple of laps, and then it was go-time for me and my Fiat. I took all the crap out of my car (including my floormats), strapped my helmet in, and headed to the grid. “Does this seat go down any further?” my instructor asked me. Sadly, no. You’re stuck at the barstool-like seating position, my guy.
We eased onto the track, at a ginger 35 mph. I was in the “acclimation” group, technically a step above the “first-timers” group, I think my overconfidence put me in a group ahead of my actual skill level. My Fiat 500 Abarth was placed in a heat with two M3s (an E46 Cabrio, and a F30 sedan), and a Hyundai Genesis Coupe 3.8L automatic. My whole first two laps were under 50 mph — I was terrified. I had never worn a helmet before, let alone in my car. My head felt like it was bopping everywhere, and I couldn’t focus on what I was doing. Normally, I was confident on the street – but on a tight narrow track? Nope! Nervous.
I looked over to my instructor, and said: “uh, is this OK? I’m going really slowly.” He assured me that this was a perfectly fine pace, and whenever I was ready to go faster, that would be fine, too. The first lap came and went, and I got more comfortable. I had acclimated myself to the track’s tight curves, the narrowness of the spaces. The main straightaway (between turn 13 and turn 1) was short, with a few bumps before you entered the first curve.
With my instructor’s blessing and confidence, I turned on sport mode, and then punched it. The Abarth closed in on turn one, I got as far left as I could, then smoothly pressed the brake. With my hands held firmly on 9 and 3, I rotated the wheel right and felt the car grab hold of the road. As the car exited the curve, I pinned the throttle, and I catapulted forward to the next series of curves. “Track in, hold it, hold it, hold it, ok, now track out,” remarked my instructor, as I dealt with the constant radius turn that led to a backend straightaway with a minor kink. “You don’t even need to lift off the throttle here,” my instructor remarked. I kept the throttle pinned as I crested more than 90 mph.
The more I drove, the faster I got. Like a housecat focused on a bird outside your window, I focused on my racing line, listening to what the car was doing, learning how and what my car will react to which inputs. The awkwardness of wearing a helmet in the car faded away.
My Abarth is my daily driver; it’s great at grocery store runs, hauling my junk, and shuttling me on long aimless drives states away. It sounds great in a parking deck, and I like the steering and shifter, but what do I really know about the car, dynamically? I love saying “oh the Abarth is a more charismatic car than (insert sporty cheap car here)”, but how much authority does that statement have coming from my lips? Is the Abarth even dynamically good? Lots of auto journalists think so, but what do I think? How would I even know for myself?
Now, I can confidently say that the Abarth is great. It has just enough power to make laps interesting, but not so much as to where the car felt like a handful or out of control. My first few laps were slow; I was convinced I was driving at the limit, and my car wasn’t able to take much more. The more I drove, the more comfortable I got – the Abarth’s limitations are higher than I thought. It grips curves like glue, the chassis and steering are communicative, never once did I not feel as if I didn’t exactly know what the car was doing. On one lap, I entered a corner too hot, braked too hard, and upset the car’s balance. The Abarth was forgiving, allowing me to fix thing, without losing control or careening off the track. I’m lucky to have this car, it was an absolute bargain for the price I paid and the level of performance it delivers.
I didn’t seek out the Abarth, it fell into my lap. I’ve always liked this car, it was one of the last cars I ever drove in my hometown after being disowned for being gay, and moving hours away to escape that drama. In 2011, I called my local Chrysler/Dodge dealer — I had gotten on a waiting list for a light brown Fiat 500 Pop. I had no money, I was in the closet, I had no strong life prospects. The Fiat 500 was cheap, but the way my life was going, it might as well have been a Rolls-Royce. I’ve always liked Fiats, they’ve been a car that’s been in my proverbial rearview mirror, something I’ve wanted, but could never rationalize. “It is too small, too expensive, too impractical, too hard to run”, I’d say. How could I ever justify buying a small sporty city car, when I could spend that money on a safer, more practical car? The noises the Abarth made, didn’t matter. The accurate and hefty steering, the cute styling – all something I felt I had to deny myself. Partially, because I could never afford it. Another part, because, I felt like a car like that was just too indulgent, somehow.
I still remember that last test drive in my hometown. The salesman had tossed me the keys to a brand new Abarth, near identically equipped to the one I have now. I went on a 25-minute long joyride, smile beaming. The salesman knew I couldn’t ever afford that car. I wasn’t that good at driving back then, I knew less about what made a car dynamically superior, compared to what I know now. Still, I knew the Abarth was special, I knew that it had potential, I knew that the guts were good, even if I couldn’t articulate how or why.
Even after the Abarth fell into my possession by happenstance, my thoughts and experience were about the same as when I took that life-altering test drive. I knew my Abarth was a good car, but I wasn’t sure how. At the Autointerests track day boot camp, I finally started to understand what the hell I had.
The Abarth is a great platform to learn to drive competitively with, provided you’re not too tall. The elevated seating position may not be ideal for some, but I found that it made planning your racing line, and putting the car in the right place on the track, very easy. The large wheels and summer tires, offer tons of grip, and the car itself is relatively light and narrow.
Front-wheel-drive cars generally tend to understeer or plow when the throttle is introduced mid-corner or corner exit. Now, some keyboard warriors may cite this as undesirable, and maybe it can be in certain circumstances. For a new performance-based driver, a front-wheel-drive car will likely be easier to manage and correct when “shit gets real.” A rear-wheel-drive car driving as I did could result in unwanted fishtailing and oversteer, not ideal for a new driver with very little experience. Remember, Nelson Ledges is narrow, there’s not a lot of room to screw up.
The Abarth carried tons of speed through all of the corners; it made quick work of the chicane and tighter curves on the course. Its front-wheel-drive architecture and trick LSD torque-vectoring meant that I could pin the throttle on corner exits with nearly no penalty. Basically, the car uses the brakes to simulate the effects of an LSD. The differential is open, but the brakes can activate on either front-wheel to rein in torque steer, but also create a torque-vectoring effect, making the car grip more in corners. The steering is direct and accurate — never once did I have to saw at the wheel, unsure as to where my wheels were pointed. The Abarth’s torque comes early, and stays strong, a perfect match for the “fast in, slow out” mantra repeated by so many people who drive front-wheel-drive cars competitively.
Obviously, the Abarth’s 160 horsepower is no match for the more than 300 horsepower offered by the BMW M3s and the Genesis Coupe, but I wasn’t as down for the count as you’d think. Sure, this wasn’t a race, but I carried just as much (if not more) speed through the corners as the M cars and the Genesis. Heck, even on the straightaway sections, the Genesis couldn’t pull away as quick as its 300 horsepower rating suggested.
Now, we’re all learning — it’s possible that the other drivers didn’t have the confidence to go as fast as I was. The Abarth, gives you confidence, though. It started life as a tall Italian city car, with a short wheelbase and narrow track. Yet, I found the Abarth forgiving for a new competitive driver; it was remarkably hard to upset — the car would rather stick to curves, rather than slide or plow. Adding throttle mid curve rewarded you with more grip, and more speed. If you did manage to upset the car, it was very forgiving as it allowed you to get back on track, rather than slide out of control.
I suspect that the brake-based torque-vectoring simulated e-LSD did help a lot. It also did a number on my brakes, by lap ten or so, the brakes felt mushy.
“Are you running ceramic pads?” my instructor asked me. In fact, I was. I didn’t know that ceramic pads weren’t necessarily good for the track.
I didn’t get a chance to do the full experience. Unfortunately, I had to bail at lunchtime, the Rainbow Rallycross was the next day, and the Daewoo’s tires would have never passed technical inspection. Sigh. Still, the Autointerests boot camp gave me so much more appreciation for my Abarth.
I learned I was right. I really do know what I have now, and I lucked out finding such a good example one for cheap. My 19-year-old self was right — the Abarth is a damn great car. It grips, well, it is easy to drive, it’s fun to cane, and it’s very forgiving. Can’t wait to get it back on the track.